Ranking the Top Breakout Stars of the 2014 NHL Playoffs so Far

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistMay 4, 2014

Ranking the Top Breakout Stars of the 2014 NHL Playoffs so Far

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Stanley Cup playoffs are a time when legends are made.

    One of the most exciting parts of the NHL postseason is watching unexpected players put their teams on their backs and climb to new heights.

    Breakout stars can be young players on the rise or they can be journeymen who suddenly exceed our expectations. Sometimes we see hints of this potential during the regular season; other times, these performances come right out of the blue.

    Here's a look at the top breakout stars of the 2014 playoffs so far. With one exception, the list includes only players whose teams are still alive in the postseason. Rankings are based on the player's overall contribution to his team, with a heavy emphasis on key moments like game- and series-winning goals.

    In cases where teams have had more than one surprise player making an impact, I've thrown out a few honorable mentions along the way.

    If you're noticing another difference-maker or think a player is about to step up his game, share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through the end of games Saturday, May 3.

9. Nathan MacKinnon: Colorado Avalanche

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Where He Stood: The 18-year-old led all rookies in scoring with 63 points in the regular season, getting better as the season went on.

    What He's Done: MacKinnon showed the same fire in the NHL playoffs that helped him win a Memorial Cup with the Halifax Mooseheads in 2013.

    Not shy about the big stage, MacKinnon followed up a three-point performance in his first NHL playoff game with four points in the second, then scored the overtime game-winner for Colorado in Game 5.

    Where He'll Go from Here: Though the Avalanche ultimately fell to the Wild in Game 7 of the first round, MacKinnon's playoff debut was a success for a Colorado team with plenty of potential. As former chief scout for Hockey Canada Kevin Prendergast told Joe O'Connor of the National Post, "He wants to make a difference. He wants to be the guy to score the winning goal. He wants to be the guy to have the puck when it matters. The kid thinks he is 25, he really does."

8. Brandon Saad: Chicago Blackhawks

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    Where He Stood: In his second full season with the Chicago Blackhawks, 21-year-old Saad continued to improve and make the most of his ice time.

    What He's Done: Saad gained valuable experience during the 'Hawks 2013 Stanley Cup run, where he contributed six points. This year, his ice time has bumped up by nearly two minutes in the postseason. Saad has already contributed five assists in just seven games.

    Where He'll Go from Here: Chicago continues to be led by the big four that have anchored the team since 2010: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Saad's job will be to contribute solid minutes and chip in on the scoresheet from time to time.

7. Matt Niskanen: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Where He Stood: About to become an unrestricted free agent at age 27, Matt Niskanen had a breakout regular season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Stepping up during injuries to Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, Niskanen crushed his previous career highs with 10 goals and 46 points and led the Penguins with a plus-33.

    What He's Done: Niskanen has continued to put points on the board in the playoffs, with two goals and six assists in the Penguins' seven playoff games. He's tied for his team lead in scoring and just one point behind P.K. Subban among all defensemen in the playoffs.

    Niskanen's defensive teammate Paul Martin also has eight points so far but at 33 years old, can't be considered a true "breakout" star. Neither was with the Penguins when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009.

    Where He'll Go from Here: Talk about incentive—Niskanen's solid season has already put him in line for a big raise from his current cap hit of $2.3 million when he signs a new deal this summer. The further the Penguins go in the playoffs, the higher his price will rise.

6. Nick Bonino: Anaheim Ducks

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    Where He Stood: It's been a long road to full-time NHL employment for 26-year-old Nick Bonino. Drafted in the sixth round in 2007, Bonino served a long apprenticeship before becoming a regular over the past two seasons. He exploded with 22 regular-season goals and 49 points in 2013-14, earning a three-year contract extension from the Anaheim Ducks in November.

    What He's Done: Bonino almost single-handedly dispatched the pesky Dallas Stars in the Ducks' first round. The Stars held a 4-2 lead late in the third period of Game 6 and looked like they were about to force a seventh game, but Bonino scored with 2:10 remaining to pull the Ducks within a goal.

    After Anaheim scored again to send the game to overtime, Bonino was the hero. He ended Dallas' season with his second goal of the game, just 2:47 into the extra frame.

    Where He'll Go from Here: The Ducks are a team that runs off the fuel of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but the team is building a young secondary-scoring regime to replace aging stars Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. Bonino's a key member of that crew, along with Mathieu Perreault and Matt Beleskey. They'll keep finding ways to score key goals at critical times.

5. Mikael Granlund: Minnesota Wild

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Where He Stood: After an up-and-down rookie season in 2012-13 that ended with him in the minors, 22-year-old Mikael Granlund became a full-time member of the Wild this year. He scored 41 points in 63 games and offered tantalizing glimpses of the offensive talent that he was known for in his native Finland.

    What He's Done: With the Wild trailing 2-0 to the Colorado Avalanche in Round 1 and 60 minutes of scoreless hockey in the books in Game 3, Granlund got Minnesota its first win of the series on a spectacular overtime goal to bring the series to 2-1, kicking off his team's impressive comeback.

    Granlund's been good, but he's not the only breakout star for the Wild so far in these playoffs. Darcy Kuemper stepped in to stop the bleeding after Ilya Bryzgalov disappointed in the first two games, while Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter are young players who have also contributed game-winning goals.

    Where He'll Go from Here: With Kuemper injured and a tough matchup ahead against the Chicago Blackhawks, Granlund and the Wild may have to be content with whatever moral victories they can muster against a team that appears to be peaking at the right time.

4. Benoit Pouliot: New York Rangers

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    Where He Stood: Benoit Pouliot has been an impressive reclamation project for Alain Vigneault in his first season with the New York Rangers. On his fourth team in four years, the 27-year-old found his niche on the Rangers' power play. He got better as the year went on, tying for the regular-season team lead with seven power-play goals as he reached a career high of 36 points.

    What He's Done: Pouliot has stepped up his production in the playoffs so far, with three goals and three assists through eight games. He scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal in Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers, then added what looked to be the winner in Game 1 against Pittsburgh, though it turned out his teammate Derick Brassard had actually put the puck in the net a few seconds earlier. No credit for that one!

    Where He'll Go from Here: Pouliot is brimming with offensive confidence and should be able to keep it rolling. His six playoff points are already a career best. Expect him to keep contributing if the Rangers keep winning.

3. Brendan Gallagher: Montreal Canadiens

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    Where He Stood: In front of the net, mostly. The diminutive 21-year-old became an important part of the Montreal Canadiens' power play in 2013-14 by showing that he's not afraid to take the punishment that comes with hanging out in the dirty areas. Gallagher was second on the Habs, behind Max Pacioretty, with eight power-play goals.

    What He's Done: Gallagher's continuously gritty play edges him past the impressive Rene Bourque as this year's breakout star for Montreal so far. The 32-year-old Bourque was crazy-hot in the early going against Tampa Bay, but Gallagher has now passed him in the points parade with three goals and three assists.

    He's also showing that he has the courage to stand up to the aggressive Boston Bruins—a valuable trait that was lacking from Montreal as a whole when the team was steamrolled by the Ottawa Senators in the first round in 2013.

    Where He'll Go from Here: Gallagher ranks just seventh among Canadiens forwards in ice time so far in the playoffs, but he's playing impact minutes.

    Smaller players can eventually start to wear down from the heavy-duty grind of the playoffs. Gallagher looks like he's just getting started.

2. Tyler Toffoli: Los Angeles Kings

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    Where He Stood: After appearing in 12 of the Los Angeles Kings' playoff games in 2013, 22-year-old Toffoli established himself as a regular in 2013-14, putting up 12 goals and 29 points in 62 games.

    What He's Done: Toffoli was a key part of the Kings' historic four-game comeback against the San Jose Sharks, scoring the winning goals in Game 4 and Game 5 to help keep the Kings alive in their series. He added another goal in Game 7.

    With his clutch two-goal performance for the Kings in Game 1 of their Round 2 series against Anaheim, two-time 42-goal scorer Marian Gaborik is having a career renaissance, but I wouldn't call it a breakout.

    Where He'll Go from Here: Toffoli's another player with plenty of upside. The Kings have brought him along slowly, and he's now making regular contributions. 

1. Reilly Smith: Boston Bruins

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    Where He Stood: In 2013-14, Reilly Smith proved to be much more than a throw-in from the Tyler Seguin trade, with his 20 goals and 51 points ranking him sixth in Boston Bruins scoring.

    What He's Done: Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton have both been important members of Boston's blue line so far in the playoffs. Smith earns the "breakout" title for two reasons: Firstly, his success is more of a surprise than the highly touted Krug and Hamilton, and secondly, his winning goal to cap off Boston's comeback against Montreal in Game 2 of Round 2 is a highlight that will be remembered for years to come.

    The goal was Smith's third of the playoffs and his second game-winner, leading the Bruins.

    Reilly has also earned family bragging rights after his team bested his older brother Brendan's Detroit Red Wings in Round 1.

    Where He'll Go from Here: Smith was a key contributor to Boston's Game 2 comeback, which could prove to be an important turning point in the series against Montreal. In his first-ever Stanley Cup playoffs, Smith is showing that he can take his game up another level.